A challenge, loud and clear

Special to The Times

WHEN architect Lloyd Russell decided to build his house here, he was determined to embrace the drama of downtown. Stand on the mezzanine of his daring new structure today, and you see not only the skyline of a growing city, but also a stream of cars speeding along Interstate 5 and roaring jets touching down at the international airport.

“When planes go by, it’s the coolest thing,” Russell says, raising his voice as a Southwest 737 passes just a few hundred feet overhead.

Critics may accuse this self-described “throwback Modernist” of ignoring reality, of being an impractical dreamer trying to craft a livable space from a “billboard lot” wedged between the freeway and Lindbergh Field. But then again, this three-story, live-work edifice was designed to defy conventional wisdom.


Dubbed R3, the structure attempts to tame the cacophony of urban living in the most extreme of environments -- what one sound engineer declared “the noisiest site in San Diego.” If warmly embraced, it may contribute to a re-examination of what urban planners, residential designers and the public consider to be a habitable site. “So much development in California is going to the edges -- away from the cities,” says Russell, 39. “This is about being at the intersection of all things quintessentially urban.”

AS metropolitan areas grow more dense, new solutions to urban land use are critical. One of the biggest obstacles to developing many sites is noise, particularly the rumble of traffic.

“Although cars are quieter than ever before, the latest figures available show that the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase at over 2% a year,” says Bruce Davy, a principal of Davy & Associates, an acoustical engineering firm in Manhattan Beach.

For Russell, buying land right next to Interstate 5 didn’t start as an attempt to reinvent urban living, but rather as a form of economy. He and his wife, Ame Parsley, were looking to build on a cheap lot. In Southern California, that often means a steep hillside.

But Russell, who has lived in downtown San Diego for more than 10 years, knew that the freeway’s construction disrupted the urban grid. Odd parcels of land had to exist along the corridor. Cheap parcels.

One day he came upon a triangular lot where “people used to park their broken-down cars underneath the billboard.” It was tight: 120 feet by 116 feet by 28 feet. But the Merrimac and Essex apartment complexes, which Russell had designed with Ted Smith, taught Russell how to build right up to the sidewalk and make use of every inch of land.


“What was most attractive was its triangular shape,” he said. “This would be my version of the Flatiron Building.” The price: $50,000.

In the design phase, Russell and Parsley’s anxiety about noise pollution only increased when sound engineers descended on the lot.

According to their report, the planes overhead would ratchet the noise to 78 decibels on the second floor, envisioned as the main living area. That’s similar to what one would hear while standing about 35 yards from a freight train and more than 70% higher than the standard for residential buildings set by the state, Russell says.

The runway at San Diego International Airport is only one-third of a mile away, and incoming planes fly as low as 250 feet overhead. (When a crane arrived at Russell’s construction site, airport officials quickly informed him that the equipment violated Federal Aviation Administration-regulated air space.)

To temper the aural onslaught, Russell designed R3 (so named because it’s his third building in San Diego) to address the intensity and direction of sound waves. Among the simplest strategies: installing double-glazed windows.

Also critical was the placement of the glass, the weakest link in any soundproofing plan. On the wall facing east, looking toward the freeway, the best solution for noise reduction would have been no windows at all. Russell compromised, putting a large picture window away from the source of the noise. The glass on the west side, facing the airport, was deliberately kept narrow.


To allow windows to be kept shut for long periods in every section of the house, Russell installed four separate air-conditioning and heating systems. An overhang on the west-facing roof further reduces noise from low-flying planes, deflecting sound waves before they hit the glass below.

The crenulations in the exterior concrete walls break up the clamor of traffic on India Street. On the south side, closest to the flight path, he erected two 30-foot high walls, which Russell says also would serve as a bulwark in the event of a plane crash.

Together, these strategies diffuse so much of the traffic noise that the home is surprisingly quiet inside. Only the roar of landing aircraft interferes with conversation, though at its busiest, planes land every five minutes.

“But then there’s times when it could be an hour between flights,” Russell says. An airport curfew runs from midnight to 7.30 a.m., and the freeway embankment behind the house absorbs the sound of the planes’ approach. The din from their engines lasts less than three seconds.

For the uninitiated it remains a distraction, but Russell prefers a glass-half-full perspective: “I’ve lived in parts of San Diego where you hear the approach and it’s much worse.”

R3’S most important design statements turned out not to be technical. They were aesthetic.

The building’s interior evokes a sense of tranquillity -- a visual quietness that contributed to R3’s prize from the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which in August bestowed top honors to Russell’s design in the organization’s annual design competition.


From the opposite side of India Street, R3 appears to be a solid rectangular block, the tall facade providing no hints of the triangular form behind it. At the northern tip of the building, however, the tip of the triangle narrows dramatically, and the building that seemed like such a thick, solid mass suddenly ends in nothingness.

“I see their faces after they’ve turned around,” Russell says of passersby. “They’re wondering where it went.”

The front door lies at this apex. Climb the stairs and you’re greeted by a two-story-high living room, its walls spreading wider and running out for 55 feet. Light floods in at eye level. The space is peaceful and elegant, much like Russell’s previous urban lofts.

A handsome open kitchen sits at the far end, in front of a 20-foot-high wall. Tucked behind the kitchen, away from any windows, is the master bedroom and bathroom. Another flight of stairs leads to the mezzanine, currently used as a media room. Here, a panoramic view of San Diego unfolds.

Russell, who declined to disclose construction costs, says the 2,900-square-foot structure can be split into four distinct units, if so desired. He and Parsley live on the top two floors, which theoretically could be divided into a main apartment with the central living area, kitchen, master bedroom and bathroom, as well as a mezzanine that could serve as a loft apartment. Parsley, chief preparator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, co-founded a gallery ( that occupies much of the ground floor. Finally, a studio apartment lies by the ground-floor garage. All four sections have their own entrance and bathroom.

“One thing I learned from living in Europe is that, if a building’s good, it’ll have many different uses over time,” Russell says.


Flexibility is only part of R3’s appeal, says Thomas Hacker, an architect in Portland, Ore., who served on the AIA award jury. Russell turned a “waste bucket” site into a building with whose “articulation of the architectural elements was very sculptural and beautiful,” he says. “I do a lot of juries around the country, and this was quite unusual.”

According to Hacker, the value of R3 goes far beyond the building’s sculptural power and “animal presence.” The project raises the bar of what can be accomplished on urban infill sights.

“Blocking the freeway in such a commanding way, it establishes the beachhead for the street,” Hacker says. “That will make building on the rest of the block much more enticing.”

For Russell, success ultimately would mean one more source of noise: the sound of others trying to duplicate his accomplishment.


There are ways to block out urban din

Noise is a major complaint from many urban dwellers. An understanding of the sources as well some smart products can go a long way to returning peace and quiet. Among the solutions:


Walls: A major source of unwanted noise is traffic, and not just on freeways. “We’ve done many jobs near busy roads such as Coldwater Canyon Drive,” says Don Behrens, president of Environmental Noise Control in Hawthorne. He recommends a wall, legally constructed and professionally built, near the offending street or close to the house, but not in between. An “in-betweener” does little good, he says. The higher the wall, the better. If you’re worried about blocking a view, Behrens recommends adding laminated glass panels atop the masonry. A wall that’s angled to the house, not parallel to it, will divert more sound waves.

Fences: Wood fences can be turned into sound barriers by inserting mass-loaded vinyl paste between the slats. Wood trim must be placed over the paste to prevent decay.

Windows: Double-paned windows with Sound Transmission Class ratings of 32 to 36 can reduce traffic noise, says Bruce Davy, principal partner in Davy & Associates, an acoustical engineering firm in Manhattan Beach. The higher the STC rating, the better the soundproofing. Most conventional single-pane windows have an STC rating of about 22.

Foam panels: For homeowners troubled by loud conversation from a neighboring property, sound management foams can be applied to exterior walls.

Vents: Because sound travels through even the smallest openings, such as air vents, Davy advises homeowners to examine the outside of their house. “Vented attics are common culprits,” he says. “They are direct openings for outside noise which, especially if you have recessed light fixtures, then travels straight down into your rooms.”

Ducts: Air ducts for heating and air conditioning act as conduits for noise. Laying them at an angle, not flat, will impede the path of sound waves. They also can be lined with a sound-absorption material such as fiberglass insulation.


Isolation: In these days of home theaters, stopping noise from spreading through a house is important. Behrens recommends using Resilient Sound Isolation Clips available through PAC International. The clips reduce the amount of noise transferred via studs and sheetrock by 75% or more.

Pros: Although many of these products and strategies are easy to employ, a visit from an acoustical engineer may be worth the expense. They can identify the source of the noise and advise how to block its transfer.

-- David Hay